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Eichmann's Jews: The Jewish Administration of Holocaust Vienna, 1938-1945

Tragic misunderstandings

    A pillar of press cuttings at Yad Vashem's exhibition marking this year's 50th anniversary of the Eichmann trial
    A pillar of press cuttings at Yad Vashem's exhibition marking this year's 50th anniversary of the Eichmann trial

    By Doron Rabinovici
    Polity Press, £20

    No sooner had the threat of annihilation been lifted from Jews in Europe than they began to accuse one another of co-operating with the Germans in order to survive. Tribunals were set up in liberated cities and Displaced Persons camps to hear charges against former functionaries in German-run administrations.

    In western Europe and under the Soviets, Jews were put on trial in civil courts. Many were given harsh sentences. Anger among survivors was so widespread in Israel that, in 1950, the Knesset passed a law to enable the trial of persons accused of having been kapos. More than 40 "kapo trials" were held.

    The subject exploded again in the 1960s thanks to Raul Hilberg's critical remarks about Jewish behaviour in extremis, and Hannah Arendt's strictures in Eichmann in Jerusalem.

    This ill-informed condemnation triggered a wave of research that revealed the nuances in Jewish leadership across German-ruled Europe and the uniformly appalling dilemmas they confronted.

    Doron Rabinovici's study of the German-appointed Jewish administration in Vienna (originally published in 2000) is important because it focuses on the first one established by the Nazis. Vienna provided the model that was employed by the Germans wherever they conquered.

    Following the German occupation in March 1938, the community was decapitated by arrests. Those leaders who were permitted to reconstruct a Jewish community organisation had to serve the German goal of rapid mass emigration. Adolf Eichmann, appointed to the Jewish Department of the SS in Vienna, commanded Josef Löwenherz, a former director of the Jewish Community (IKG) to devise a centralised office to manage the process. The Central Office came to control the IKG and, hence, the destiny of Austria's Jews.

    Until November 1941, as well as caring for needy, sick, aged and orphan Jews, the IKG ran a massive emigration operation. But when German policy switched to deportation, it continued to perform. IKG employees distributed the yellow star that marked Jews, prepared inventories of Jewish properties, and issued instructions for the deportees.

    The Germans drew up the lists, but in Room 8 of the IKG, Löwenherz and other officials agonised over who they could make a case for "deferring".

    IKG "marshals" located Jews in their homes, escorted them to the assembly sites, and watched over vacated properties until other teams came to remove the household goods for the Germans.

    Jewish doctors and nurses were present at the final registration and the station where trains left for Theresienstadt or "the East". The last Jew many saw was the "gruppenführer" of the marshals, Robert Prochnik.

    For the doomed, it looked as if Jewish officials ruled their lives. But Rabinovici shows that Jewish anger was misdirected: "In reality the Jewish functionaries were powerless in the face of the deceptions practised by the Nazi authorities. The Jewish administration was unable to offer an alternative strategy… the behaviour of the Jews no longer had any effect on the Nazi policies." Rather, the policy of co-operation enabled two thirds of Austrian Jews to emigrate, half of whom with help from the Jewish organisations. To the end, they struggled to save lives.

    Rabinovici's study is occasionally repetitive, but his judgments are sensitive and evidence-based. He concludes that the myth of Jewish collaboration and individual self-preservation was part of a post-Holocaust identity resting on the comforting fantasy that those who did not co-operate had resisted.

    In fact, the Jewish leaders inevitably shared the hopes and delusions of their communities and it was this common fate that makes their role so tragic.

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